It was a grey Sunday morning in Germany, frigidly cold. I can still picture it all now, nearly five years later. The doorbell rang unexpectedly and I could make out two shadowy figures through the frosted glass window. With my husband stationed in Afghanistan for the previous 10 months, I was jumpy at any unexpected phone call or doorbell ring. My daughter ran to answer it, while I stood stock still, clutching my bathrobe around myself protectively.
“Can we speak to your mom?”
Nooooooooooooooo, I screamed inwardly. Don’t let them in. Don’t let this be real. I knew it couldn’t possibly be good news on an early weekend morning.
As the visitors rounded the corner into my living room, I realized it was two of my closest friends, faces reddened and puffy from weeping.
“You need to sit down,” one of them said.
I staggered backward to a seat and braced myself. (While wondering: why did the military send them? Was it easier to break it to me to this way?)
“Just tell me!”
And my friend took a deep breath and told me…not that my husband was hurt or killed, but that a mutual active duty friend had died that morning. I wasn’t living a nightmare, but his wife was.
I nearly vomited from the shock…and relief…and shock…and guilt. However, my mind quickly switched gears from self-protection to a numbed state as I tried to take in what they were telling me. A medication interaction…an accident…he was gone. What?
As military spouses do, we cried and talked and then switched into help mode. The rest of the day was spent with our friend, crying with her, sitting with her, listening, trying to make sense of the unthinkable. We all returned to our own homes and children that evening. One especially perceptive friend came back to the house to sit with the new widow through the night, telling us that the one thing she’d needed after her mother died was to not be left alone that first day or two.
My two friends didn’t realize until much later that I thought they were coming to tell me about my husband. It seems a bit silly in hindsight (because I know how the military notifies of death), but there is not much logic coming into play in a moment like that. And though it wasn’t the news I’d thought, I’d tasted for one brief moment the hell that a family goes through in the aftermath of an active duty death.
When I speak to younger spouses, here are a few things I try to pass along… things I’ve learned about dealing with grief after the death of a military family member:
1. The military has a good process in place and it works.
From the Family Assistance Representative to the chaplains, they’ve had the unfortunate distinction of having done this more than a few times. While the information overload and paperwork can be overwhelming to a grieving family member, every single active duty person who dealt with my friend (and other families I’ve been involved with in other circumstances) were inordinately helpful and kind. They understood that the immediate time period after a death is stressful and they would have to repeat themselves and so left binders, phone numbers, and written information for the family to review when they could think more clearly. They gave their cards to the close friends in case we had any questions or concerns. They often walked away with tears in their own eyes, as this is extremely personal to them. They were the ones who drove to the airport to pick up extended family members, helped expedite clearing housing, and overall make this horrible, unwanted transition as smooth as possible. They were the consummate professionals and I appreciate them more than I can express.
2. Because of #1, this allowed friends to act as friends.
This freed us up greatly to be emotionally and practically available to our friend and her family. We were stationed at another base when a family experienced the accidental death of their three-year-old. Again, the spouses and friends rallied round and helped where we could. We ran to the grocery store, did dishes in the background, ran a load of laundry, dealt with difficult extended family, and acted as a buffer for the grieving family. It also gave a sense of purpose and doing something concrete for those we loved.
3. Though the process works, it is helpful to know ahead of time what resources are available.
When other spouses wonder what would happen in their worst-case scenario or how to help if they’re faced with a situation like this, can you point them in the right direction? For instance, are you familiar with the Casualty Assistance Program, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), the Survivor Benefit Plan, or Tricare issues? These are all good programs to have at least a nodding acquaintance with. If you have a Family Support Center (may be called something different based on your branch of service) on your base or post, stop by and ask for information to keep on hand as reference for these and other programs. They are usually happy to educate.
4. It’s ok to if you’re not sure what to do.
No one knows everything and no two people grieve in the same way. For those outside the grieving family, we are often bumbling along, attempting to be as much help as possible while not being instrusive. Shortly after arriving at a new base, the first “event” we attended was, sadly, a funeral for a young Airman in my husband’s unit who’d committed suicide. None of us knew the parents or what might possibly be appropriate to say. After the service, I stood there, wondering what I would want to hear if it were my child. Through tears, I walked up to the bereaved mother, hugged her, and gasped out, “I’m just so sorry.” She clung to me and we stood there crying together, strangers and fellow mothers. It’s a good reminder that, in the face of tragedy, it’s not about you…not for one single second.
Military folks tend to act like a big, dysfunctional family. But, in its darkest hours, we know how to pull together and see our family through their worst day ever.